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Vote moves $82 million from public safety to public health

The Public Press
 — Jun 17 2009 - 12:17pm

Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Photo by brainchildvn

In a day of high tensions, as hundreds of San Francisco firefighters and public health activists held loud, competing rallies outside City Hall, the Board of Supervisors Tuesday sent a message to Mayor Gavin Newsom: Let's rework the budget priorities together.While the supervisors insisted on passing a modified interim budget that transfers $82 million in funding from public safety agencies to public health programs, a move that has angered Newsom, they also changed the tone of their rhetoric, saying they are ready to work in collaboration with the mayor.

The central policy debate has been this: the more progressive-identified supervisors, including John Avalos, Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi, were angered by Newsom’s June 1 budget proposal that deeply cut social services yet grew policing and firefighting. They argue that the cuts will destroy San Francisco's social safety net.

The board's attempt to take money from public safety has frustrated the mayor, who is beginning a gubernatorial campaign while trying to plug a $438 million city deficit. Speaking to the fire union outside City Hall, Newsom said the supervisors acted without concern for his office and criticized them for not collaborating.

Avalos said that the board amended the budget to send a message.

"Going forward does not mean we will be cutting hundreds of jobs -- this interim budget lasts for a month," Avalos said. "We are really just making a statement about how we need a better way of balancing our budget."

The vote leaves the mayor in a tricky position.

"He actually can't veto this," Mirkarimi said. "It lays the groundwork for some real uneasiness procedurally speaking." He quickly added that he is ready to work with the mayor.

"Ultimately speaking we should be peacemaking,” Mirkarimi said. “We should see what he might put on the table."

The supervisors are now poised for a reaction from Newsom.

"I had a meeting with the mayor yesterday, and we made progress," Avalos said. "We said we are going to work together, but we haven't come up with real specifics yet."

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos. Photo by Hank Drew/The Public Press.

The next step is for the supervisors to hear each general fund committee one by one and decide which organizations should receive "add back" funds -- money held in reserve for last-minute adjustments in the month of July before the final budget is set in stone.

Substance abuse and mental health services are high on the list of organizations for restorations, Avalos said.

Mitch Katz, director of the Department of Public Health, said a reconciliation between competing interests this month is crucial. "I would like the mayor and the board to work out how the city continues functioning after July 1," he said.

There were raucous crowds outside City Hall all afternoon as public health advocates and hundreds of firefighters held competing rallies across the street from each other. Once inside, the two sides shouted at each other. Daly and Avalos appeared at the front of the crowd and both were booed by the firefighters.

Public comment during the supervisors' meeting lasted three hours. Many speakers expressed frustration at the framing of the debate, arguing that public health and public safety were intertwined.

"We are not at odds with mental health, and I think realistically if they cut their budget down to the bone, we would have more cases," said Gabriel Shen, a firefighter. "It would be a disservice to us. There has to be a way to bridge the gap."


Michael Pistorio contributed to this story. Reach the reporter at kstark [AT]